Has LeBron James Become the Most Popular Athlete in the World?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJuly 23, 2013

LeBron James accepts his award as the Top Male Athlete at the 2013 ESPYs in Los Angeles.
LeBron James accepts his award as the Top Male Athlete at the 2013 ESPYs in Los Angeles.Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

LeBron James is the king of basketball these days—and, boy, is it ever good to be the King.

He's led the Miami Heat to the last two NBA championships, won four of five league MVPs and played an integral part in Team USA's run to Olympic gold in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London.

Success of this sort in the sports world breeds popularity, especially in this day and age of expansive television coverage and exploding social media. If you win as often and perform as brilliantly as LeBron does in a game as prominent around the planet as basketball, you're bound to reap the rewards as a popular figure.

But as dominant as James is in his arena of choice, is he the most popular of all athletes?

That depends on how—and against whom—you measure it.

(Note: All statistics noted herein are accurate as of July 19.)

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King of the Court

Within the world of hoops, James' fiercest competition comes from (surprise, surprise) Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Coincidentally (or not), Jordan was the player of the 1990s, Bryant was arguably the player of the 2000s and James now looks to make the 2010s his own.

He's well on his way to doing just that, both on and off the court. LeBron is far and away the most followed NBA personality on Twitter, with well more than nine million people tracking his every tweet. Only Shaquille O'Neal, with a following of more than 7.4 million, can hold a candle to James in that regard.

However, when Facebook enters the fray, the competition begins to heat up. As it happens, James' flock of Facebook fans is "only" the third largest among basketball players, behind (you guessed it!) M.J.'s and Kobe's.

The realm of social media isn't limited to just Facebook and Twitter—a notion that Starcount takes to heart. Starcount is a company, based in Singapore, that measures a given person's popularity among and engagement with 11 (and counting) social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube and Weibo, China's premier microblogging service. Forbes used Starcount's metrics in compiling the 2013 edition of the Celebrity 100, which ranks the world's most powerful celebrities. 

M.J. ranks highly on Starcount, with a "Starscore" of 60.7 million, just ahead of Kobe's nearly 58 million. LeBron, though, blows them both out of the water, with a Starscore of 72.5 million.

To Jordan's credit, he's no longer an active athlete and hasn't been for more than a decade. In fact, His Airness retired from the NBA for the third (and final) time in April 2003, just two months before the Cleveland Cavaliers made LeBron the No. 1 pick in the draft.

A timely passing of the torch, indeed.

That hasn't stopped M.J. from cleaning up in endorsements, though. According to Yahoo! Sports, the former Chicago Bulls superstar-turned-Charlotte Bobcats majority owner rakes in approximately $60 million per year in royalties from Nike alone. That lone partnership would've placed Jordan third among athletes in endorsement earnings on Forbes' most recent list of the world's highest-paid athletes.

Throw in Jordan's deals with Gatorade, Hanes, 2K Sports, Upper Deck, Presbyterian Healthcare and Five Star Fragrances, and he'd be top dog in this regard, with an estimated take of $80 million.

Not that LeBron's exactly a slouch, per se. James has blown away the field of active players in shoe sales, with his signature kicks generating $300 million in sales in the U.S. alone last year. According to Forbes, that's double the amount sold by the next four most popular footwear endorsers combined (Kobe, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose).

All told, James is the most endorsed athlete in the NBA today. His portfolio includes partnerships with Nike, Samsung, Coca-Cola and McDonald's, all of whom contribute handsomely to LeBron's $42 million tally. Kobe, meanwhile, checks in with $34 million in endorsements.

Jersey sales would serve as another important indicator of a player's popularity if the precise sales data were made public. The best information we have comes from the NBA itself, which releases an annual list of the top 15 most popular jerseys. Carmelo took top honors this year, ahead of LeBron, Durant, Kobe and Rose, among others.

But we don't know how many jerseys or how much revenue that entails. Moreover, the NBA Store lists LeBron's uniform as the current top seller on its website, which may or may not contradict the league's report from April.  

In any case, the full breadth of data points to LeBron's primacy among his NBA peers in terms of popularity and celebrity. His combination of on-court success, off-court earnings and ubiquity across all media (Internet, TV, print, radio, etc.) contributed to his recognition as the highest-ranked basketball player among Forbes' latest Celebrity 100.

Who Owns the Throne?

Still, LeBron wasn't No. 1 among all athletes on that list. Nor is he the most followed on Twitter, the most "liked" on Facebook or even the highest rated on Starcount. 

At present, those distinctions belong to the superstars of the world's most popular game: soccer.

Or football, depending on your preference.

On a sport-to-sport basis, soccer/football still takes the cake ahead of basketball as far as esteem is concerned. Basketball has made massive inroads as a global game over the past 25 years or so, thanks in large part to the efforts of outgoing NBA commissioner David Stern to promote hoops overseas. But those efforts, valiant as they may be, have done little to thwart the fact that soccer is the most played and most watched sport in the world.

Even James probably recognizes as much, as his minority stake in the world-famous Liverpool Football Club of the Barclays Premier League would suggest. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the most famous athletes today dribble with their feet rather than with their hands. LeBron's following qualifies as the third largest of any athlete on Twitter, but it pales in comparison to those of the top two: Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka.

Nor can James so much as sniff the stratosphere of Facebook into which Cristiano, Kaka, Barcelona standout Lionel Messi and worldwide phenom David Beckham have ascended thus far.

As you might expect, then, James' Starscore lags behind those of his pitch-bound peers as well.

And if earnings are at all a worthwhile measure of popularity, then James has a ways to go. Tennis legend Roger Federer, golf moguls Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Beckham each pulled in as least as much endorsement money as did LeBron during Forbes' most recent fiscal cycle.

Likewise, Roger and Tiger both checked in ahead of LeBron on Forbes' Celebrity 100 list.

But LeBron pulls in more dough than his ball-kicking brethren and is both more followed and more recently successful than Roger, Tiger and Lefty. Only Federer (Wimbledon 2012) and Mickelson (this past weekend's British Open) have taken home a major championship since James hoisted his first of two Larry O'Brien trophies last year.

In truth, LeBron may not be the most followed or the best compensated athlete in the world today. That being said, when we bring all of the aforementioned categories together—Facebook fans, Twitter followers, endorsement earnings, Starscores and placement among athletes in Forbes' Celebrity 100—LeBron comes close to snagging the top spot.

 LeBron JamesCristiano RonaldoKobe BryantTiger WoodsRoger Federer
Average Rank54.411.21937.6

(Note: David Beckham, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi and Phil Mickelson were left off due to their respective absences from Twitter. In Messi's case, his official Twitter account is a fan account run by Adidas. As for Kaka, he failed to crack Forbes' Celebrity 100 this year.)

It's tough for LeBron to win out when Cristiano Ronaldo is tops among the three social media categories and just so happens to be the best (and highest-paid) player on one of the most celebrated and supported football clubs in the known universe.

But to his credit, James isn't all that far behind.

(And, well, the meta-measure itself isn't all that scientific.)

In any case, LeBron, at age 28, still has plenty of elite basketball left in the proverbial tank, assuming his injury history remains as spotless in the years to come as it did during his first decade in the NBA. Chances are, he'll rack up many more individual and team accolades—and parlay those on-court successes into an expansion of his pop-culture media celebrity—before he hangs up his best-selling shoes for good.

By then, we may be looking at LeBron as the world's first billion-dollar athlete, with a powerful footprint to put his competitors across all sports to shame.

Just as he has all comers on the hardwood.